When you left us last we were eating up the hours in Shangri- La awaiting our overnight bus to Kunming. As if it knew we were leaving imminently, China chose to highlight its best and worse qualities to us all in the same day. On one hand we met three lovely Chinese whilst we were eating in a small establishment who just wanted to chat to us, find out about our lives and share their food with us. Added to that list of characters was the kindly fruit seller who gave us a couple of bananas free because we didn't have enough small change. Contrast that with our boarding of our mobile bedroom. Within minutes the driver and his cronies had turned the bus into the inside of one of Keith Richards' lungs. Now as much as we love the Rolling Stones we weren't prepared to spend a night in an ash tray. Whilst I was on the verge of karate chopping someone, motivated by the martial arts film playing on the screen, Mrs K calmly debunked from her bed, purposely strode up the aisle towards the offenders and energetically pointed to the no smoking sign on the windscreen. Cue cigarettes flying out the window. Round 1 Mrs K and sweat not even broken. They should have learnt their lesson because the next time some vagrant tried to light up she did exactly the same thing and evoked exactly the same response. Round 2 and TKO Mrs K. Go the wife and smoke free buses up and down China. And that's when we realised that the Chinese are petrified of getting in trouble with the authorities. So our advice to you is if you ever encounter any anti-social Chinese is to just take your camera, photograph them and mention 'The Police' and we're fairly sure you'll get what you want pretty soon. That said we still disembarked smelling like we'd spent a night cuddling Dot Cotton, so who the real winner was is anybodies' guess. In a related and but rather disconcerting move the wife has taken to wearing her underwear over her trousers to advertise her Super-Heroine status.
The Chinese, like no other country's citizens we have visited, has provoked so many thoughts and such broad spectrum of emotions: we have been charmed by their generosity, appalled by the lack of care they show to their environment, disgust at their manners and frustration at the way the state governs them. I think what makes you so passionate is that this country isn't some small insignificant island with a few million inhabitants, this country is a super power that will fairly soon have economy that dwarfs the rest of the world. For such a nation to be so progressive yet so backward at the same time makes you slightly fearful of what the future may bring. Challenging times ahead methinks.
So one flight in a rather small plane later and we left China and its preoccupation with the squat toilet (will never get used to that one) and we arrived back in the relatively uncensored country of Laos (number 21 for all of you keeping count on wall charts). In the 5 minute journey from the airport we saw more western travellers than we saw in the entire 2 weeks travelling in China. We are back on the 'falang' trail and after the China experience this feels decidedly more like a multi-stop holiday than the adventure over the border. Everyone speaks English here to varying degrees of proficiency and the number of western luxuries available here is as much to do with former French occupation as it is to do with the number of 18 year old gap year students seeking comfort in familiarity. There's nothing wrong with it, but it is a little less exciting. Alright, don't get me wrong here, we haven't turned into your hard core, don't wash, bearded, stripey trouser wearing, just give us rock for a pillow and a sheep for a duvet travellers, but a bit of a challenge would be nice.
Laos has that obvious French flair to it, but less in terms of the architectural influence that was evident in Vietnam (although there is a version of the Arc de Triumph). but more in terms of cuisine and language. Vientiane, a pleasant and non descript place, is quite possibly the smallest capital we have been to and I dare say you would take longer wandering around Teddington than this place, which proved to be a lovely antidote to the hectic and ever expanding Kunming. Just to mark our exit from China and all those long Chinese bus journeys we decided to treat ourselves with a wee hour long massage for the 'it'd be rude to say no' price of 2 pounds. We felt like we were walking out of the place having burgled it in broad day light and backed out expressing how sorry we were for paying so little. My goodness, you know someone needs to tell them that 2 pounds in England would just about buy you a small black and white picture of someone having a massage then the whole game really would be up....ssshhh!
A brief morning cycle on old lady bikes complete with baskets and a dog in... well not really a dog, but a stripey jumper, beret, baguettes and a strong of onions would have at least completed the image. We made it all the way to Laos' most important temple Pha That Luang which appears on pretty much every thing to do with Laos. The place is typically relaxed and peaceful, especially if you come early, and save a few monks completing their daily tidy up chores we could enjoy the place in peace. No rest for us though, as an hour later we caught the bus to Vang Vieng. It's just a rumour, but apparently there are some people actually from Laos here, not just westerners, mostly English, wearing their 'Beer Lao' and 'Tubing' t-shirts....I'm not convinced though. Vang Vieng, in its entirety, is basically a travellers' ghetto and every cafe/restaurant plays non stop 'Friends' or any other American sitcom throughout the day. Actually finding food from Laos here is a serious conundrum! It is an odd place; you see there isn't much there save a couple of temples that fade into the background and some karst formation that you could easily fail to notice. The place is dominated by 18 year olds, bars, restaurants and clothes stalls all catering for the kids. It just wouldn't exist were it not for the bus loads of gap year students arriving every day. Can I just point that neither of us have anything against 18 - 21 year old gap year students despite our obvious dismay at bumping into large numbers of them. Indeed we have met some fantastic individuals within that age range who have thoroughly impressed us with their general acumen and outlook on life. No our gripe is based more on the premise that travel should surely be about immersing yourself in the culture of another country not impressing yours upon it.
The less time spent in Vang Vieng the better and after averting a major camera memory card crisis with a little help from the kind gent in the internet shop, we set off by bus for Luang Prabang. I have to confess to have been seriously considering the decision to come to Laos over Myanmar (Burma) until we left Vang Vieng behind and the true extent of this county's beauty revealed itself to us. As the abundance of electrical wires and wide screen TVs disappeared we could finally see the magnificent karst formations and the gorgeous green mountains and hills as far as the eye could see. An enviable amount of lush green vegetation (despite rampant deforestation) that wouldn't look out of place in a catwalk show alongside perennials Costa Rica and New Zealand. The views are so inspiring that at times they look too good to be true and you wonder if you have wandered onto a film set, especially when you pass the road side villages that complete the scene. These huts are easily the most primitive lodgings we have come across this year and mark Laos out as comfortably one of the poorest countries we have travelled through. Despite that fact you get an overwhelming impression that the people in this laid back land are happy and there is a real sense of community palpable as you drive past and observe their lives. The sheer number of children running, laughing, joking and playing with each other at the side of the road and sometimes dangerously on it draws one of the starkest contrast with 'One child China'. And whilst the people of other low income nations have often looked forlorn or ravaged by recent history, these folks look satisfied at the very least. I may be completely wrong , as I have yet to conduct a full scale national survey, but there is clear vibe that suggests so.
Arriving in Luang Prabang, now fully exalting the virtues of Laos and frantically searching for an 'I love Lao t-shirt' much to the wife's embarrassment, we trawled the surprisingly dark streets searching for a guest house at the right price. This has been our year: every few days (when we have been on the move) you turn up in some new town, loaded up with all your belonging like a donkey and must search out for somewhere to stay. It's a game of chance , decide to early and you might miss out on the better room at a better price that's just down the road. Decide too late and you risk pissing off the wife for making her walk too far all to have to walk back to the first place you looked at...which is now full. I look forward to having just the one bed.
So Luang Prabang, come on down. Nestled between the mountains at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kham rivers we have a late contender for the 'love at first sight' award. All lit up at night it comes alive and has that feel of small Mediterranean town on a summer's night. You wander the streets, grab a crepe from a street stall, before strolling through the pedestrianised strip that becomes the night market each evening. All the while bistros and cafes line the road serving anything from baguettes and croissants to freshly brewed coffee. It's an absolute haven and just what we needed to get Vang Vieng out of our veins - thank you Gods of travel.
It was with a certain amount of apprehension that we left our guest house the following morning after such a definitive declaration of love. From past experience things often look much better under disco lights after a couple of baby shams....I should know, I married one....I couldn't resist that. In the cold light of day when all the blemishes are laid bare you can realise that your thoughts were somewhat premature. Fortunately Luang Prabang proved not to be some horrific one night stand with a women who should know better at her age, but the beginning of a meaningful relationship with a classy lady. She is just as beautiful by day and is still holding the key to our hearts. One bike ride into the countryside and a kayak along the Nam Kham later and that is still very much the case.
One of the things we have tried to do lots during the course of this year it to take photos of the locals every place we have been, especially the children (the Lao kids are just as cute as the Cambodians). So that was exactly what we did when we went to cool off at the Tad Sae waterfalls in search of respite from the searing Lao heat. It was only after clicking away for a lunchtime that it the occurred to us that we now possessed a catalogue of photos that would land us 25 years in Broadmoor back in England. Funny how you forget these things.
So this morning we donated our time to the Big Brother Mouse initiative here in Laos. A group that hope to bring literacy to wider cross section of the public and who produce a range of English-Lao books to aid that purpose. They are always looking for volunteers so as visitors to this great place, we thought it only right that we offered our services to further their cause. Essentially we were asked to just talk with small groups of students for a couple of hours to help them practise their English. We both had lovely groups, eager to learn and to be taught. A great morning's work. So taken are we with place that we have even decided to go back for the next two days to continue the process. One of the students even invited us back to see his village and to show us a couple of the more remote temples in Luang Prabang. You can't fault their effort and thirst for knowledge. Another nation trying to better themselves.
So from here it will be back to Thailand in a few days, this time to Chiang Mai. Right you miserable lot, we still haven't had any response to our search for sponsors to continue this sojourn into a second year...we're beginning to think you don't like us. You'll only have yourselves to blame if we have to come home in 10 days time.